Marie de France’s ‘Lanval’ (Abrams, 2006. p. 142-157) is a 12th century lais that tells the tale of a knight who is caught between two different worlds; that of his lover’s and his own.
Forced to live between both worlds, Lanval finds himself stuck between a world of solitude and a world of love. Through the trials and tribulations that result from the circumstances that he finds himself in, Lanval is confronted with the challenge of keeping his love with the Queen of Avalon a secret.
This essay aims to show that in order to become a better knight Lanval must confront the challenge that results from him being unable to keep his love with Queen Avalon sacred. Lanval’s oath to hide his relationship with his lover is his biggest challenge and ultimately proves to be the lais’s central dilemma and unravels a series of consequences which almost bring about his undoing. It is by facing up to the consequences of his actions that he is able to grow personally through learnt humility, develop an understanding of what’s most paramount and mature and become a better knight.
In order to develop an understanding of why Lanval failed the challenge of keeping his love secret, we must first develop an understanding of Lanval’s physical and emotional isolation. In the beginning of the lais, Lanval is absent of two things – women and land. He is described as a noble foreigner who resides far from his homeland, living by what appears to be the only profession he knows, being a knight (Ireland, 1977. p. 132).
King Arthur rewards the service of all his other knights but inexplicably passes over giving Lanval neither women, land nor money.
King Arthur’s behaviour is undoubtedly unfair inexplicable, given Lanval moved from a foreign land and has no ancestral rights to any land in the area so is left with nothing. According to Ireland in the ‘Narrative Unity of the Lanval of Marie de France’ such omissions by royalty are not uncommon in medieval literature (Ireland, 1977. p.
133). Further to this, he is not held in high regard by King Arthur’s other knights – “Nor did his men like him at all. They envied his handsomeness, his courage, prowess and largesse. ” (Abrams, 2006.
. 143). Although loyal to King Arthur and his knights ,the lai reveals that Lanval is upset by the situation he finds himself in and generates a negative outlook, “Now Lanval is much preoccupied, gloomy seeing the darker side….
when he comes from a foreign land and finds no help from any hand,” (Abrams, 2006. p. 143) which leads to him living a life of solitude and isolation. In contrast with the solitude experienced in his own world of King Arthur’s court, Lanval is provided unconditional love and wealth by the Queen of Avalon.
However, to further isolate Lanval from King Arthur’s court, Lanval is forced to separate both worlds because the Queen of Avalon, demands that their love remain sacred or he will lose her forever – “I warn you and pray you and command: you must not tell anyone about the love that you have won.
The consequence I shall declare: should people learn of this affair, you shall never see me again,” (Abrams, 2006. p. 145). Throughout the lais, Lanval faces the challenge of remaining loyal to his lover by keeping their love secret.
In the end, it is Laval’s ego which stops him from remaining loyal to his lover and revealing their sacred love when King Arthur’s Queen accuses him of homosexuality. Finding it necessary to justify himself to the Queen, Lanval betrays the promise he made to his lover and puts his own pride ahead of his loyalty to his lover.
This shows Lanval’s immaturity and how he puts his own selfish pride ahead of any loyalty to the Queen of Avalon or King Arthur. However, it is at this point of the lais that the reader begins to see a personal change in Lanval.
Almost immediately he begins to grow personally through the experience by quickly developing self-awareness and regretting his biggest error and betrayal. This is noted by Patrick’s in ‘The Narrative Unity of Lanval’ who suggests that Lanval “reaches a kind of extra mortal awareness that his life and love lie in the other world,“ (Ireland, 1977. p.
140). After Lanval’s secret love is revealed, it appears that the relationship between him and his lover has ended as “being well aware that he has spoiled the whole affair,” (Abrams, 2006. p. 149).
During his trial, Lanval defends himself but it is his betrayal of his lover that is the biggest concern for the knight than the possibility of being sentenced to death or banished by a jury of his peers.
This leads to Lanval’s submission to any decision the court determines; life or death matters little to Lanval if he cannot be reconciled with his lover. It is clear for the reader at this point that a major personal change has occurred in Lanval, the immature knight that the reader gets to know at the start of the poem is already evolving into a selfless knight. It is during his trial that Lanval is left “complaining and sighing”… rying a hundred times for her (his lover) to have mercy (Abrams, 2006.
p. 149). It is at this point that the reader can see that Lanval is developing humility brought about by his loss and that his love becomes the most important thing in Lanval’s world. It is by facing the consequences of his actions that we see Lanval continue to grow personally and ultimately become a better person and knight.
In conclusion it is evident; that it is only by failing the challenge of honouring the promise to his lover to keep their unspoken love secret that Lanval is able to eventually come to an understanding of what is most important to him.
Throughout the lais the reader is able to follow Lanval’s development and see that it is not until Lanval develops a deep understanding of his mistake and what his pride may have cost him that he is able to develop humility and to become a better person and knight.